Making Fitness Trackers Last Requires Coordinated Effort

coordinated effort
Credit: Thinkstock

If the future of healthcare is to be collaborative as well as data-driven, then fitness trackers need to improve on their 33 percent abandonment rate. That will require a bit of effort on the part of health insurers, patients and their employers, because an ounce of prevention is worth many dollars saved.

Roughly one in three consumers who starts using a fitness tracker stops using it within a year. Research from IDC says the top reason for device abandonment isn't battery life, comfort or functionality.

Above all, consumers stop using fitness trackers because they lose interest in them.

That matters. Reform efforts in the United States emphasize collaborative care as a means of shifting healthcare's focus from treating sickness to promoting wellness. Fitness trackers – which can measure progress toward a goal such as pounds lost, steps walked and hours slept – can be a key tool for patients, providers and payers, offering real-time feedback on short-term goals and a measurable set of data against which to set long-term goals and to offer tangible incentives for reaching those milestones.

[ Commentary: Wearable Tech's Dilemma: Too Much Data, Not Enough Insight ]

If consumers give up on their fitness trackers, though, it's not likely to be long before they give up on their fitness initiatives as well.

Consumers Using Fitness Trackers Aren't Necessarily the Ones Who Need Them

One challenge, says Lynne Dunbrack, research vice president for IDC Health Insights, stems from American’s need for instant gratification. Even without a fitness tracker, we all know that eating right and exercising puts us on the right track, but in a culture of "everything fast and quick," it's hard to get patients to see past direct-to-consumer diets and pills and plan for their long-term health.

In addition, most device users are young, wealthy and healthy – a marked contrast to the demography of most health and wellness programs, which target those with chronic conditions. "These consumers are typically older, more sedentary, and perhaps with lower rates of health and medical literacy," Dunbrack writes in an IDC report, Fitness Activity Trackers, Improving Health One Step at a Time. "Education about the benefits of wearables will be required to encourage the consumers who would benefit most from wearables to actually use them."

That's where active engagement comes into play, Dunbrack says. Because the average consumer isn't all that attuned to his or her health, successful wellness and fitness programs offer intrinsic and extrinsic motivators – ranging from discounted gym membership to coupons for healthy foods to reduced insurance premiums – along with coaching and context. (Some devices offer paid coaching programs; others have free coaching apps. Larger employers and insurers can also partner with nutrition coaches.)

[ Feature: Pros and Cons of Using Fitness Trackers for Employee Wellness ]

Interest will be high at first – as it is whenever you hand someone a new gadget – but participants need to see that the program, and the fitness tracker they're using in the program, gives them actionable information to incite behavior change. Looking at the device, Dunbrack says, they'll ask, "What else does this do? What value am I getting out of this?"

People Who Stop Using Fitness Trackers Can Help Make the Devices Better

Making sure people remain interested in the device itself will help a wellness program retain value over time. Insurers and employers alike understand that insight into daily activity can promote wellness and, in time, reduce insurance costs – but with one-third of users abandoning fitness trackers, it's hard to justify the return on an investment in hundreds of delicate devices that can cost $200 apiece.

A separate IDC report, Why Consumers Stop Using Fitness Trackers, highlights more than a dozen reason that consumers abandon devices. Many of the complaints provide insight into what future generations of fitness trackers must do:

  • Comfort matters. Armbands can be bulky, and wristbands can cause rashes.
  • Looks matter, which is why Tory Birch is partnering with FitBit and luxury designers are considering smartwatch lines.
  • Accuracy matters. Poorly tuned accelerometers do little good. Same goes for devices that say someone lying in bed at 3 a.m., staring at the ceiling, is "asleep."
  • Open APIs matter. As users find new applications that help them achieve fitness goals and earn incentives, they'll want their fitness trackers to connect to those apps.
  • Battery life matters, as does the capability to easily recharge batteries.
  • Water resistance matters – not just in the pool, mind you, but the washing machine, too.

The fitness tracker market remains volatile as well. There's been consolidation (with Intel buying Basis and Jawbone buying BodyMedia), entrances and exits (with Under Armour buying MapMyFitness and Nike scrapping the Fuelband) and new health platforms from Apple, Google, Samsung and WebMD.

You Can't Track What You Can't Measure

Until prices drop, form factors improve and device abandonment slows, IDC says pilot projects will be the norm for wellness programs. (The analyst firm expects this period to last 18 to 24 months.)

[ Analysis: Smartwatches, Glasses and Other Wearable Tech Are No Gimmick ]

Another unanswered question concerns what physicians and clinicians will do with the data that fitness trackers generate. Interfaces are "not inconsequential," Dunbrack says. A physician asked to interact with multiple apps for multiple data points from multiple devices of dubious reliability may simply refuse, putting what could otherwise be valuable patient-generated data into yet another silo.

If nothing else, though, wearable tech represents a good start for improving health and wellness. As the saying goes, you can't track what you can't measure. The key, Dunbrack says, is continuing the education – using rewards, coaching, social engagement and a variety of other incentives – so that people keep strapping on the wristband, smartwatch, armband, earbud or glasses long after the "initial infatuation" has faded.

Insider Resume Makeover: How (and When) to Break the Rules
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies